Dianna Cohen is a painter, but she doesn’t use a paint brush. Trained at UCLA, she gave up the brush for materials most people consider trash: bags, boxes, little pieces of plastic. This year, she helped to found the Plastic Pollution Coalition. After twenty years, she finally started to get the messages from her own art. During my weekend in L.A., Dianna put me up in her art studio. I got to live with her artwork for three days and pick up a few messages myself.
Over lunch, Dianna explained to me about her art process and her passion for protecting the environment. While in college, she became intrigued with the different shades of brown paper bags and began creating collages, stitching them together with a needle and thread. One of my favorite pieces is this beautiful abstract piece made with cardboard boxes:
Her interest in plastic bags arose at a homeopathic shop in Belgium that provided the bags with colorful flowers printed on them. Dianna noticed the irony of the natural image against the synthetic material and began creating collages from plastic bags, arranging the printed text and images to create messages that even she didn’t always understand.
After about eight years of working with plastic, she noticed that some of the materials had begun to crack and flake, leaving tiny pieces of plastic inside their frames.
Honestly, when I saw these pieces, I thought the cracks were intentional. They seemed so organic and right. I think it was then that I started to understand some things about plastic. There is beauty in it. It’s harmful to our health and our planet. But we cannot deny that it can be visually beautiful and even enticing. Perhaps this is part of its appeal?
Anyway, dismayed that her art was not as archival as she once thought, Dianna changed her perspective and began to realize that the disintegration of the plastic was part of the message of the piece. While plastic molecules might last forever in the environment, the plastic products themselves can break down into smaller and smaller pieces, releasing their chemicals and doing even more damage than if they remained intact.
And then, looking at the recycling under her own sink one day, she started to wonder why she was throwing away so many perfectly good materials in the first place. And to question what actually happens to them in a single stream recycling system. Starting with cereal boxes, she began to collect other kinds of “trash,” like bottle caps and those little square plastic bread bag fasteners (whatever they’re called) to use in her art.
And she’s become more active in working to stem the tide of waste, especially plastic pollution. She can’t shop in Trader Joe’s anymore (dubbed “Trader Blows” by several people over the weekend) because of the amount of plastic packaging the store uses. And she had a melt down at the food coop she’d been shopping at for years when she went in one day and realized there was almost nothing she could buy that wasn’t packaged in plastic.
Her artwork too has expanded its boundaries, no longer confined to flat collage pieces in frames. Now, it bursts from the walls and mingles with elements from the natural world.
But I think my favorite piece of all is a tiny Styrofoam peanut nestled together with a twig atop a blue jar hidden in a corner of the studio. The message is simple and profound. This is what we have done. Deceptively sweet. Dangerous in it utter mundanity.